Sunday, January 13, 2013

Villain of the Month: Past Tense, "Um," "Because," and a Sandwich? (The Speech Patterns of Villains)

A man's seated with his arms on a table

After reading an admissions essay by James Holmes, I was frustrated that I couldn’t see any real foreshadowing markers to the horrible real-life villain he would become, and began to wonder if there were any markers of villainy in speech. Then I pulled up journal entries and the like from the Columbine murderers compiled by acclaimed journalist Dave Cullen (author of Columbine). The intimate writings are great resources, and well worth a read to pick up on nuance and cadence.

In furthering my research, I hit specificity jackpot.  I found some researchers (Jeffrey T. Hancock, Michael T. Woodworth and Stephen Porter) asking and answering the same linguistic question. What a great tool for making seating charts, navigating blind dates, and –most importantly – crafting the dialogue of a villain! Their analysis was focused on psychopaths and non-psychopaths talking about homicide, but I think that there are trends that may work really well for writing psychopathic characters even when not talking about homicide. Their findings were as follows:

1.      “Psychopaths (relative to their counterparts) included more rational cause and-effect descriptors (e.g., ‘because’, ‘since’).” Such an easy add to writing, and psychologically fascinating because it shifts the blame to the universe or the victim, and away from the villain. In writing a psychopath villain, keeping the mindset of universe-blame might be as valuable as the use of peppering the aftermath of one of his crimes with “because” and since.”

2.      “[Psychopaths] focused on material needs (food, drink, money), and contained fewer references to social needs (family, religion/spirituality).” Ooooh…how many chilly scenes can we reference of villains eating a victim’s sandwich or complaining about the sound of the air conditioning in the height of a killing? Tarrantino, the Cohen brothers, and the like know the balance of the horrific and mundane trick all too well. Who knew they were mirroring the linguistic patterns of psychopaths so perfectly?

3.      “Psychopaths’ speech contained a higher frequency of disfluencies (‘uh’, ‘um’) indicating that describing such a powerful, ‘emotional’ event to another person was relatively difficult for them.” Yikes! If saying “um” is a sign of psychopathy, I’m in trouble, but it seems that these disfluencies are at a time when others are talking about emotions. Not only can the “uh’s” help you craft a psychopath’s language, but may also help you linguistically show the difficulty one of your characters may have with a topic other than emotions or murder.

4.      “Psychopaths used more past tense and less present tense verbs in their narrative, indicating a greater psychological detachment from the incident, and their language was less emotionally intense and pleasant.” Interesting! Linguistically pushing events away from them/their crime by using time. Very sneaky. And an easy tool for mimicking a psychopath’s dialogue/line of thinking.

And for a final link on how to craft the psychopath’s language, the FBI used the findings listed above as part of a training on “The Language of Psychopaths” – an excellent article by the researchers listed above as well as a slew of other big-name experts in the field.

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